Zuko put his head down on the desk, just for a moment. He was surrounded by mountains of scrolls, all urgent, all requiring his thoughtful consideration. He wished, fleetingly, that Iroh was around to tell him what to do, though he wouldn't drag his uncle away from his tea shop for anything. He sighed. Political feuds were breaking out all over the Fire Nation at the moment, as they were wont to do every few years. Bickering, attempted power grabs, regional leadership scuffles, everyone seemed restless. Zuko pinched the bridge of his nose, certain there was a resolution to all of this somewhere, though so far it was invisible to him.
There was a knock at the door. He jumped to his feet, praying for any kind of remotely legitimate interruption, anything from a state visit to some new sewers to inspect, he didn't care. Mai peered round the door. He sighed as she looked meaningfully at the sea of paper.
"I know, I know. I'm trying, I swear."
Her mouth twitched. "I'm sure you are. Well, never mind that now, there's a surprise for you downstairs."
"Not another performing animal, please," said Zuko. "It was hard enough last time finding a good home for a single tiger-bear."
"Well, in a manner of speaking... " Mai said, her voice rich with amusement. "The Avatar's here."
"Aang's what now?" Zuko tried not to panic. "But I had no idea, I haven't prepared anything, we can't give him any kind of ceremonial welcome--"
"Zuko," Mai said. "Take a breath. I'm pretty sure he's here in a personal capacity."
"... Oh." Zuko did as instructed and took a deep breath. "That's fine then."
Mai gave him a look of fond exasperation. "So are you coming?"
Zuko smiled, for the first time all day. "Of course."
Aang's delighted shout greeted Zuko as soon as he entered the room, and he was overwhelmed by six feet of excited airbender before he had a chance to say anything.
"It's so great to see you, buddy!" Aang said, still hugging him.
"And you," said Zuko, getting his wits together and returning Aang's hug. "It's been too long."
"Well, that's what I thought," said Aang, stepping back and beaming at Zuko. "And so when I got Mai's letter --" Zuko stared at Mai; Mai shrugged, "-- I thought I'd come visit. Sounds like you could use a break!"
"I'm sorry, I can't." Zuko sighed. "There's just so much to do - I've got to talk about rebuilding projects with the generals, and bash some of the governors' heads together, and--"
"-- And those are all things the rest of us can handle," said Mai. "I'm very good at bashing heads. You're no good to anyone if you have some kind of breakdown."
"We're going to have fun!" Aang said. "Katara's getting here this evening to give Mai a hand, and she's bringing Iroh with her."
Zuko had the distinct feeling he had been conspired against. "I -- guess I could spare a day or two?" he offered.
Mai smiled. "Good decision."
"Yes!" Aang punched the air. "I'll go make sure Appa's ready for another trip - I know he's going to be excited to see you too."
"The primary source of harmony in the world," Mai said dryly, watching Aang leave. "Strikes fear into your heart, doesn't it."
Zuko laughed. Aang had flourished tremendously as he'd grown into his role of the Avatar, and he knew they all hoped he'd never lose that playful, excitable side of himself.
He turned to Mai. "Are you really sure?"
She pressed a finger to his lips. "Yes. It's as much for the sake of my sanity as yours, you've been unbearable for weeks. No, don't apologise, I understand. Just go. Be with Aang." She prodded his chest. "You know I know that stupid heart of yours has plenty of room for both of us."
She kissed his cheek and pushed him away, so Zuko left, overwhelmed with gratitude.
"Hey there!" Aang said with glee when Zuko got outside.
Appa gave a roar of appreciation too, and slobbered all over Zuko with abandon once he got within licking distance. Zuko laughed and scratched behind Appa's ear, then climbed up to take a seat. Aang spun round to beam at him.
"So, where do you want to go?"
"I don't know - anywhere! Your choice." Zuko couldn't help but beam back - Aang's energy and enthusiasm were as infectious as ever. He felt the weight of all of his responsibilities start to lighten.
"You got it," said Aang, "I know just the place."
They took off, and Zuko lay back, resting his head in his hands and staring up at the sky. It was a hot day, but a cool breeze kept it from being overpowering, and so he shut his eyes and let the sunlight sink into his skin, Appa's steady flying beneath him soon lulling him off to sleep.
When he woke again, they had landed. They were beside a lake, secluded by a mountain on one side and a thick, lush forest on the other. Zuko could probably place them on a map if he thought about it but he'd never been here before.
"It's beautiful," he said, because it was. The water was a sparkling blue, and the wind carried with it birdsong and the smell of flowers.
Everything was quiet and serene -- at least, until Appa landed in the middle of the lake with an almighty splash, Aang whooping wildly on his back. Zuko shrugged off his robes, already anticipating the feel of cool, refreshing water against his skin.
But there was a wicked glint in Aang's eyes, and Zuko found himself hoisted upwards by a particularly persistent gust of air, leaving him dangling over the water. Why he'd entertained the notion this escapade would be remotely dignified, he really wasn't sure.
"One, two, three!" Aang declared, and then Zuko tumbled, flailing his arms uselessly, into the water.
Aang dove in after him, a neat, clean line compared to Zuko's cannonball-like entrance. Aang's motivation soon became clear as he went straight for Zuko's ankles, causing Zuko to take immediate evasive manoeuvres while he plotted his revenge. Even Aang couldn't hold his breath forever, and when he resurfaced Zuko was ready to send a wave hurtling towards Aang, leaving him spluttering indignantly.
They splashed around like children -- like the kind of child Zuko had never been, truth be told -- challenging each other to ridiculous races and skimming through the water. Zuko laughed, delighted that Aang could bring out this side of him, and glad just to live in the moment for once.
They beached themselves eventually, flopping onto the grassy shore in happy exhaustion. Zuko found himself smiling at nothing in particular, and then smiling at Aang as he hovered over him.
"Hi," said Aang.
"Hi," said Zuko, and pulled him in for a kiss.
Kissing Aang was always a revelation, because he was a man in constant motion, shifting between the different facets of himself. He could be as steady as earth one moment and as light as air the next. But the eager press of his mouth against Zuko's was constant, and Zuko gave himself up to it.
Aang was still laughing, a warm chuckle that reverberated its way through Zuko, making him shiver. His hands were tantalisingly light, making water droplets dance over Zuko's skin. The way Aang looked at him made the rest of the world fall away into nothing of consequence. Mai had been exactly right, this was just what he needed. He pulled Aang close again, and felt the last of the Fire Lord in him gently fall away, put aside for safekeeping while he took one good thing just for himself, just for a while.